Sunday, September 22, 2013

In central Mexico, it's all-out war in the streets for control of an entire state that's run and terrorized by a drug cartel


The Knights Templar, a quasi-religious drug syndicate prone to beheading its enemies, terrorizes an entire state in Mexico, where the government has sent thousands of troops. But enraged villagers are taking law into their own hands, saying police and soldiers are on the take.

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 In Michoacan, one of Mexico’s most dangerous states, a bloody war rages in broad daylight between soldiers dispatched by the president, the quasi-religious drug syndicate Knights Templar, and village vigilantes who say the cartel robbed, raped and killed their people while corrupt military members and police did nothing.

Gustavo Aguado/AP

In out-of-control Michoacan, villagers steal weapons to form their own civilian self-defense groups, saying corrupt military soldiers won't protect them from marauding members of the Knights Templar cartel.

In the roiling Mexican state of Michoacan, where much of the nation’s illicit and million-dollar meth trade is based, all-out war is raging in broad daylight.
Outlaws from the exceptionally nasty and cult-like cartel Knights Templar launch blazing gunfights in city streets against thousands of federal troops dispatched by President Enrique Pena Nieto, making the humble state one of the most dangerous in Mexico.
No one knows how many villagers and soldiers have been killed, but on any given weekend of late, local media have reported numbers as high as 50 in a single town.
Among the dead are high-profile politicians and military leaders: state legislator Osbaldo Esquivel Lucatero was hacked to death on the side of a road last week as he gave an interview to a journalist in the lawless territory; Navy Vice Adm. Carlos Miguel Salazar, one of the country's highest-ranking naval officers, was shot to death in a recent ambush that also killed his bodyguard.
This map, courtesy of global intelligence firm Stratfor, shows areas in Mexico influenced by drug syndicates. Knights Templar, which controls Michoacan on the central Pacific coast, is the offspring of the notorious La Familia organization.

Stratfor

This map, courtesy of global intelligence firm Stratfor, shows areas in Mexico influenced by drug syndicates. Knights Templar, which controls Michoacan on the central Pacific coast, is the offspring of the notorious La Familia organization.

Now armed civilian militias have stepped into the fray, saying they’ll protect themselves, thank you very much, from organized crime thugs who've robbed, raped and terrorized villagers who had the temerity to try to go about daily life in a rural state that appears to have disintegrated into wanton anarchy.
The number of civilian fighting groups has grown to about 30 units that have secured about a dozen towns in the past seven months including La Ruana and the lowland enclave of Tepalcatepec.
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"I know I'm going to die," a Mexican civilian fighter told the Daily News. "I'm not afraid of that.”
Mexican soldiers patrol rural roads in Holanda in Michoacan state, Mexico, where organized crime syndicate Knights Templar operate the country’s biggest meth-smuggling operation as well as gun down, extort, rape and kidnap villagers while waging open warfare with military troops.

Alexandre Meneghini/AP

Mexican soldiers patrol rural roads in Holanda in Michoacan state, Mexico, where organized crime syndicate Knights Templar operate the country’s biggest meth-smuggling operation as well as gun down, extort, rape and kidnap villagers while waging open warfare with military troops.

He spoke with The News via a mobile phone from the town of La Ruana. He asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisal from the Knights Templar, whose founding members announced their 2006 arrival into cartel life by rolling five severed heads into a Michoacan disco.
“We had to do something. We were dying,” said the member of Por Un Michoacan Con Libertad (For a Free Michoacan), a self-defense group that started standing up to the Knights Templar and its extortion racket that charged "fees" to poor farmers for everything from picking limes to having children.
Their numbers have dwindled from 300 to 200, he said, because militia members fearing for their lives fled with their families to Tijuana, where they are seeking asylum in the U.S. Twenty-five civilian soldiers have been killed, he said.
Their desperate rebellion mirrors the increasingly vicious cartel, which controls nearly all of the verdant valleys and lush mountains of Michoacan, population 4.4 million and dropping daily as residents flee.
Wearing flack vests and toting automatic weapons, self-proclaimed cartel fighters in Mexico’s central Michoacan state set up check points and take on members of the Knights Templar in a deafening gun battle footage posted Sept. 10 on YouTube.

Balacerasmex via YouTube

Wearing flack vests and toting automatic weapons, self-proclaimed cartel fighters in Mexico’s central Michoacan state set up check points and take on members of the Knights Templar in a deafening gun battle footage posted Sept. 10 on YouTube.

The Knights Templar takes its name from the Templar Knights, the medieval Roman Catholic warriors.
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“They used to come in big trucks, knocking on doors, saying, ‘I’m taking your wife now. I’ll be back in an hour,'" said the civilian fighter.
"'When I come back I’m taking your daughter for a few days, a few weeks. Make sure she has a shower,'”  he recounted.
An armed civilian stands guard in the small town of Aquila in Michoacan state, as soldiers in gun-mounted trucks  rumble by. Villagers, fed up with military corruption and drug cartel terrorism, have taken the law into their own hands.

Gustavo Aguado/AP

An armed civilian stands guard in the small town of Aquila in Michoacan state, as soldiers in gun-mounted trucks rumble by. Villagers, fed up with military corruption and drug cartel terrorism, have taken the law into their own hands.

“There have been girls 12, 13, 14, 15 that came back pregnant,” he said.
Mass graves and decapitated bodies along roads and in forests are routine sights, warnings from the cartel to give in and shut up.
The all-male militias don’t trust the long-corrupt military or its 6,000 soldiers living in their midst.
And the military, as well as the government, doesn't trust the self-defense groups, saying they are paramilitary organizations that often do the bidding of drug syndicates.
The grisly scene earlier this year when the bodies of seven men were found in lawn chairs in a roundabout in the middle of Uruapan, Michoacan state, where Mexican drug cartel Knights Templar runs virtually the entire region. 'Warning, this is going to happen to all muggers, pickpockets, thieves of cars, homes and pedestrians, kidnappers, rapists and extortionists,' read the sign impaled with an ice pick into one victim’s chest.

STRINGER/MEXICO/REUTERS

The grisly scene earlier this year when the bodies of seven men were found in lawn chairs in a roundabout in the middle of Uruapan, Michoacan state, where Mexican drug cartel Knights Templar runs virtually the entire region. 'Warning, this is going to happen to all muggers, pickpockets, thieves of cars, homes and pedestrians, kidnappers, rapists and extortionists,' read the sign impaled with an ice pick into one victim’s chest.

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Interior Minister Miguel Angelo Osorio Chong has criticized the militias, saying troops deployed to the area are more than enough to protect residents.
"The army is there. They asked for security and protection, and they have it. There is no justification to walk around armed," he told a Mexican radio station last month.
The government has reason to suspect cartels are aligned with some of the self-defense groups, Christoper Wilson of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington-based think tank, told The News.
In a horrific video posted this month on YouTube, vigilantes in Michoacan unload scores of rounds from assault rifles during daylight shootout against Knights Templar cartel gunmen.

Balacerasmex via YouTube

In a horrific video posted this month on YouTube, vigilantes in Michoacan unload scores of rounds from assault rifles during daylight shootout against Knights Templar cartel gunmen.

"There are organized (crime) groups financing these self-defense groups," he said. "One of the clear signs is that some of these groups have a level of financing and high firepower that would be hard to come by from somewhere else" he said.
Not true, said militia members who spoke to The News.
The groups’ defiance started last year with middle-of-the-night raids of cartel encampments outside their villages.
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A 22-page booklet titled 'The Code of the Knights Templar of Michoacan,' is displayed in Morelia, Mexico. The drug cartel, named after the medieval Roman Catholic order of religious warriors, clandestinely distributed the booklets through Michoacan state. Inside, it says the crime syndicate 'will begin a challenging ideological battle to defend the values of a society based on ethics.'

Marco Ugarte/AP

A 22-page booklet titled 'The Code of the Knights Templar of Michoacan,' is displayed in Morelia, Mexico. The drug cartel, named after the medieval Roman Catholic order of religious warriors, clandestinely distributed the booklets through Michoacan state. Inside, it says the crime syndicate 'will begin a challenging ideological battle to defend the values of a society based on ethics.'

Residents picked up weapons they had at home — machetes and small-caliber pistols.
Rousted from sleep at 2 or 3 a.m., the cartel members — many of them inexperienced recruits dispatched to the hinterlands — simply ran, leaving behind their assault rifles and handheld radios.
“All the weapons we have are their weapons,” the militiaman in La Ruana said.
Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, a physician who once worked in California, now serves as a coordinator for self-defense groups in Tepalcatepec.
A Knights Templar patrol vehicle, damaged in a grenade attack, is confiscated by police in  Apatzingan in Michoacan state, Mexico. The drug syndicate patrols roads, demanding toll fees from villagers, and extorts ‘fines’  from poor farmers and business owners.

Alexandre Meneghini/AP

A Knights Templar patrol vehicle, damaged in a grenade attack, is confiscated by police in Apatzingan in Michoacan state, Mexico. The drug syndicate patrols roads, demanding toll fees from villagers, and extorts ‘fines’ from poor farmers and business owners.

In an interview with The News, the doctor said his town is keeping the cartel at bay with round-the-clock patrols. But their fears of reprisal are constant.
“We are vigilant 24 hours a day,” he said. “We have to defend ourselves and we are prepared. We have lost some good people. The cartel tries to get back in every day. They send more and more to try and fight us.”
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Listening to cartel radio traffic tells the villagers they are far from being home free.
A 'self-defense' villager emerges from a roadside chapel established by the Knights Templar. The crime syndicate built the public shrines so villagers could pray to the cartel’s 'St. Nazario,' aka Nazario Moreno, the venerated saint of drug traffickers. He is believed to have been killed in a 2010 gunbattle with police in Michoacan.

Marco Ugarte/AP

A 'self-defense' villager emerges from a roadside chapel established by the Knights Templar. The crime syndicate built the public shrines so villagers could pray to the cartel’s 'St. Nazario,' aka Nazario Moreno, the venerated saint of drug traffickers. He is believed to have been killed in a 2010 gunbattle with police in Michoacan.

“We hear them every day, on the radios we’ve stolen from them, saying they’re going to come up here and kill everything down to the dogs and cats," Mireles said.
"But we are not going to permit that, ever,” he added.
Where cartel members are camped out is no secret, the La Ruana fighter said.
“Everybody knows where the leaders are, but the soldiers don’t go there,” he said. “We tell them where they are. I ask them why they don’t go. They say their orders are to stay here and to protect the town.”
The Knights Templar spun off from the dreaded La Familia cartel in 2011, after infamous drug lord Nazario Moreno, aka “El Mas Loco” (The Craziest One), reportedly died in a shootout with federal police. His body has never been found and Moreno is now considered the patron saint of drug traffickers.
The cult-like crime syndicate has its own code of conduct book, which it distributes across the region where members grow massive crops of marijuana and heroin poppies and control an incredibly large and lucrative meth industry.
All of those products travel north into the U.S., where 90% of illegal drugs emanate from Mexico, according to FBI statistics. Cartels reap untold billions and the Knights Templar is no exception.
In its professionally printed code of conduct booklet, members are lauded as fighters "against materialism, injustice and tyranny in the world.”
With Ginger Adams Otis and News Wire Services.

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dhastings@nydailynews.com
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